Carcosa from game designer Nigel Kennington and One Free Elephant pits you and your cult against others to build the home of the tattered King in Yellow to control leylines, conduct rituals, influence districts and sacrifice to the feaster in the waters of Lake Hali.
Paths to Carcosa
The game plays with classic tile-laying and worker placement mechanics that are placed and removed from the board in various ways in order to score points. There are a few ways that the game ends, after which the player with the most points is the winner. The elements of a Euro game are clear here, and it plays like one with scoring taking place during and after the game.
The tiles in this game will seem very familiar to anyone who has played Carcassonne (the epitome of tile-laying games), except they are double-sided, more on that later. The tiles also have similar features such as districts (like Carcassonne's cities), leylines (roads), ritual sites (monasteries) and you can even make sacrifices to the lake (farmers). But make no mistake; this is not a simple re-skin of Carcassonne, it may use Carcassonne as a base but those mechanics are changed to fit with the new Chambers/Lovecraftian theme of Carcosa and if you play the game simply as a re-themed Carcassonne you will miss out on some of the nuances and intrigue that is embedded within.
This Lovecraftian game doesn't pit you against the ancient ones, but instead has you leading a cult of meeples in summoning the King in Yellow himself. It is always difficult for Euro games to get the theme across in gameplay, that is not the case here and Carcosa has a sense of theme that is entwined in the mechanics and the artwork.
Let's address the artwork now; some of it is hard to make out, the tiles are double-sided with a stable side (easy to make out) and an unstable side, which can have features a little harder to see until you have played the game a few times. The game comes in a high production box, with extra artwork including real-world information sheets about the King in Yellow Mythos and a short comic strip introducing the game. These aren't needed but show a lot of product care and attention which is great to see.
The components include the meeples, some cards and some cardboard, all of which are of top notch quality though after owning the game for a while some of the paint on some of the meeples is wearing a little on the corners. One Free Elephant also included a little special 'gift' which I won't spoil here. Carcosa also comes with a small square scoring board, that also acts as a place for unused meeples and for the tile piles. It is double-sided with different game lengths on each side, adorned with a delightfully Lovecraftian yellow sign, a newer design not like the one Fantasy Flight Games uses, so it is nice to see new renditions of established mythos.
Establishing the Cult - Setting Up
As with many Euro games, set-up is quick and easy. The four Hastur tiles are placed in the centre of the table forming a square that all other tiles will grow off. The cult mat is placed nearby, there is a longer game on one side and a short one on the other. This adds a nice variation and some control over game length. In the centre, where the yellow sign sits, is the Ritual Chamber where players will place unused meeple cultists. The tiles are then separated with their unstable side up into equal piles depending on the number of players.
Then each player takes a coloured set of cultist meeples and places a meeple in each of the following places - one in the Ritual Chamber known as the prophet, this meeple has a different shape and stance to the others but it is not explicit in the rule book. An 'Oracle' meeple that is used for scoring, three ready meeples, on in the asylum of their chapter house and one in the recovery room of their chapter house. The addition of cultist health in relation to sanity is really interesting and is one of the first examples of how the Lovecraftian theme of going insane is neatly woven into the mechanics of the game.
Finally, each player takes six ritual stones. The process is logical and straight forwards making the first impression of the game at set-up a positive one.
The Life of the Cult and What Cultists Do
The game turn is helpfully described on player aid cards, and each players turn is broken down into five stages;
This is something we forgot from time to time when we first started playing, it is healing some insane and recovering cultists in your chapter house. This encourages you to really think a few moves ahead as this combined with the tile selection creates interesting choices and challenging strategies.
Select a Tile
Unlike many tile-laying games, you can see a selection of the tiles before you place them, you cannot look at the backs of them which might have some special function later in the game, once chosen you place your prophet on the stack. This stops any other players from choosing this stack until your prophet is moved; this is a double-edged sword as it means you can't select from stacks that other players have already chosen from.
Once you have your tile, you can check the back where you might find you have a theatre or power node (see below). Being able to select tiles from known ones creates challenging situations, such as do you go for the tile you need, or the one that your opponents need.
This chosen tile is then placed following the placement rules which are clear and logical. Interestingly, instead of placing a tile you can replace a tile as long as there are no cultists on the feature you are replacing, this could create interesting dynamics to the game that have lasting effects on the outcome, but it wasn't something that we found we did very often or at all, but it is a meaningful and powerful choice that is available.
A single Cultist can now be placed on a single feature on the new tile.
This might complete a feature, which would cause the tiles to flip to the stable side and score you some points or let you empower a ritual stone. This was where we needed to be in and out the rule book to check how features empower as it was not always obvious especially around the stabilisation rules and how things stabilise and the effects that this might have.
The features in Carcosa include leylines which are similar to Carcassonne's roads. If they end in a power node you score points, if not you can use them to empower your ritual stones to use their special abilities. There are districts scoring two points per tile and if you have a theatre in one you can grab a new cultist from you supply on the board, this created a bit of a race to find the district tiles with theatres. The ritual sites score around them, but some of these also have a feaster on them, something that devours all adjoining cultists who were placed in the lake, cardboard standees are also included to place as feasters which are unnecessary but nice to add flavour to the game.
Points in Carcosa are limited and once you reach the end of the point track you can no longer score and the scoring changes where you must get three cultists devoured to summon the king, and you will no matter who has the most points. The other way the game ends is when a certain number of stacks are empty (depending on player numbers), then the score can go around passed the end mark with final scoring with the most points winning.
Having different game endings is fun as it changes how you play towards the end of the game and you must keep an eye on what others are doing; many Euro gamers will attest that the player interaction in Euro games can at times be limited, but in Carcosa if you don't pay attention to what others are doing, you will lose.
The ritual stones add deeper strategy; they can let you heal more cultists faster, summon more cultists and even free up stacks that other players have blocked. It took a few games to get to grips with the rules but when we did it did start to make sense. Although there are vast similarities to Carcassonne, there are some extensive differences and the best approach to learning this game is to not compare it to Carcassonne.
Bring Forth the King - Playing Carcosa
Playing Carcosa is, at times, intense. The anticipation of which tile your opponent will take, coupled with the dread when someone is looking at using their ritual stones, questions run through your head faster than you can find answers. Why did they put the cultist in the lake? Do they know that there is a feaster there? Are they about to score lots of secret points for their cult? Should I be putting my cultists there?
The flood of options when trying to choose a tile to take on your own turn is exciting and limited just enough to overcome too much analysis paralysis. Flipping the tiles to their 'stable sides' is also fun when you complete a feature and can change the game by causing other connected tiles to stabilise, so your own strategy will need to progress as the game does. Should you abandon getting the most points and try to raise the King instead? Will you be able to Call the King before anyone else? The strategies and the interaction between players is vast and has the potential to change radically on the flip of a single tile.
Where as many Euro games are a constant level of fun to play, Carcosa builds intensity and you are never quite sure who will actually win until the final scoring is at hand and the final revelation of the victor can come as a surprise, but it is not random or without explanation. If the player who seems to be losing suddenly wins it becomes evident at how and why they won through the scoring process. Every decision is important and has effects that can last through the game. The use of the ritual stones to bring more cultists, change the game board, selecting tiles that usually cannot all add to the choices and fun of the game.
It is worth mentioning that out of the box comes two expansions; the game needs no expansions as it is perfectly fine the way it is, but it is nice to change things up a little now and then. Two "mini" expansions add the King himself, moving around the board, sending cultists insane but providing vital information to the player - in the form of a free tile to play when they wish. The second adds thugs, who can be placed like cultists on features and then prevent other players from scoring from them, changing the dynamic of the player interaction even further.
A solo variant is also included in the game, which includes AI controlled opponents and makes for an interesting game in itself, testing your strategies and can be fun when there are no other cults to go up against.
Final Comments on Carcosa
When it comes down to it, Carcosa is fun to play even when you lose! The first few games are difficult to play; the rules are not always easy to follow and until you have a few games under your belt things don't always flow as easily or logically as they do once you have a good feel for the game. Like many tile-laying games, each is very different from the last. You are doing the same actions each game and the goal is indeed the same as time you play, there are no variations to victory conditions or scenarios to play, but the game is different each time and you will never see the same game of Carcosa twice.